Rob Ashford’s Shining CARMEN Offers a Contemporary Perspective

Rob Ashford’s Shining CARMEN Offers a Contemporary Perspective

Pictured: (l-r) Lindsey Metzger, Ekaterina Gubanova, Diana Newman. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Review: CARMEN at The Lyric Opera of Chicago

By Bec Willet

On Friday night my friend and I, two women, were walking through the heart of Lincoln Park at midnight. As we waded through the mainly male circus of drunkenness, I joked: “I’ll protect you”. We laughed but with a little too much fear for it to be truly humorous. On Saturday night, I went to see CARMEN at the Lyric Opera. Within minutes of the curtain fluttering open, a young woman Micaëla enters the army camp of men; the scene I saw before me bore a striking similarity to that I had experienced not twenty-four hours beforehand. It was only the first in many moments of relevance that Rob Ashford’s expert direction delivers in his shining new production.

Premiering in 1875, Georges Bizet’s CARMEN is known to have had a cold reception, arguably leading to its author’s untimely death. Set in Spain, the story focuses on the love affairs of the Romani woman from which it gets it title. Written just prior to the Italian Verismo movement, France’s audience found the opera’s focus on the Romani and working class offensively realistic. Furthermore, it featured a woman protagonist who was not only classified as both of these things but was considered the “very incarnation of vice.”

The feminist ideas at the core of this opera have been further developed by Ashford to reflect a more contemporary perspective. In a charismatic yet contained performance by Ekaterina Gubanova, this Carmen is fiery yet also intelligent and calculated. As the men around label her a “witch” because they cannot help but be attracted to her, she manipulates these patriarchal notions in an effort to gain freedom and power. Ashford’s direction heightens this through the use of a dancer (Judson Emery) as a bull; a motif that — as a metaphor for Carmen — appears throughout the piece, indicative of her inevitable demise as both the character and a woman in a patriarchal society.

There were likewise notable performances from other vocalists that also served to consolidate this feminist perspective. Eleonora Buratto’s earnestness as Micaëla was grounded and warm, a woman who in contrast to Carmen followed the social rules of her time, yet like Carmen is fated by her gender to be unfulfilled. Joseph Calleja’s (Don José) tenor was excellent, but I found it difficult to be consistently convinced by his characterization, missing a clear motivation for his love for this woman that had so defined him. In contrast, Christian Van Horn’s Escamillo embraced every iota of swagger required of him – not only to portray a character but as a commentary on machismo.

CARMEN’s design team was also clearly attuned to Ashford’s concept, producing striking work that appeared to be effortlessly coherent. The recurring arched lines of the scenic design — reminiscent of the ruffled hems of the trajes de faraleas, the curve of the hot Spanish sun, and the movement of a bullfighter’s cape — defined the space, adding shape, depth, and mood to each act. Complimenting this, Donald Holder’s lighting design of lush warmth and silhouette served to evoke place and underscore the production’s emotional journey. This mastery of color and shape continued in Julie Weiss’ costuming. Particularly memorable were the tobacco factory women led by Carmen. Juxtaposed against the lavender dress of the fawn-like Micaëla of moments before, the factory women were an army of fierceness, bedecked in long black dresses. Taking their place downstage, their dresses and voices blocked out the audience’s view of the men, their focus on the pleasure of smoking a cigarette. These women, like their leader, might be living in a man’s world but they refused to be a party to it.

Regardless of your level of familiarity, the insight and informed yet contemporary perspective that Ashford brings to this production makes this CARMEN well worth your time.

About author

Bec Willett

Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit